Let’s talk about cheating, shall we?
Before we do, let me give some background. I teach in a highly competitive high school in Texas. My kids are the kids teachers dream of. I teach all AP classes to mostly self-driven, gifted sophomores. My kids work hard, do what they’re asked, are polite, clap for lectures, contribute well-thought out questions and comments during class, and are all so so smart. Almost 100% of my students are enrolled in more than one AP course as a sophomore; most are in three, and many are in four or more.
Despite all of these wonderful attributes, some of them are cheaters.
The past two years, the number of times I’ve yelled, “THAT’S IT, I’M QUITTING TO WORK AT STARBUCKS” is more than I’d like to admit. All of the times have been brought about by a cheating student. This cheating ranges from your run of the mill I-copied-another-student’s-homework-at-lunch to high level cheating rings.
I’ve decided not to quit.
And I’ve come to some realizations about academic dishonesty that I’d like to share, so that if you too are dealing with high-achieving and stressed out teenagers without fully developed prefrontal cortexes who sometimes make terrible decisions, you can survive. And help them to thrive, honestly.
Recognize that everybody* makes poor decisions when they’re under pressure.
*I mean I’m sure some people don’t, but most of us.
I vividly remember the time I cheated. And got caught. It was in 5th grade reading and I hadn’t finished The Hatchet despite being an avid bookworm and a quick reader. I just wasn’t in to it, to be honest. However, in 5th grade reading, the teacher doesn’t care if you’re into it or not. So there was still a reading check. And in the heat of the moment, I stretched my neck and looked at my neighbor’s paper. I was immediately caught and cried in the hall as my teacher told me I would be getting a zero.
I tell you this because I was the definition of a “good kid”.
I worked hard, I did my work, I was liked by my teachers. But in the spur of the moment, none of that mattered. I was unprepared and panicked. I knew cheating was wrong, but I did it anyway. I’m glad I got caught and got a zero, because it taught me a lesson.
But it’s also important for me to remember this story whenever I catch a kid. Sometimes they are not criminal masterminds in the making; sometimes they are stressed out kids who, in the spur of the moment, make a poor choice. They still need repercussions (more on that in a minute), but they are also kids who shouldn’t be judged by their worst decisions.
Define academic dishonesty and the repercussions for it early and often.
What is academic dishonesty? As educators, we know the answer to this. But that knowledge has come through experience. Some things are so obviously cheating. Kids know they aren’t supposed to look at each other’s tests; they know they aren’t supposed to copy each other’s work or buy essays online. But there are plenty of places they need to be specifically told “hey friends, this is cheating.”
For my classes, there are two examples of this. The first is immediately following a test. My kids love to gather in the halls and discuss they harder questions. “What did you put for the Robespierre question” ring out. To them, everyone in their circle has taken it…what is the big deal? To me, all I can think of is how much time it took to write those hard questions and how all my afternoon classes haven’t seen that hard question. This was a specific thing they had to be told. Stop talking about my test questions before everyone has seen them; stop talking about my test question in front of the freshmen so I can use them again next year!
The second comes in their writing. We write year long research papers in my AP European History classes and it is shocking the number of kids who inadvertently plagiarize. At first I thought it was laziness, but I’ve finally come to the conclusion that no one has actually spelled out when things should be cited. I know someone did that for me and now it’s my turn to make sure my kids know not to make those mistakes.
Explaining what cheating is has little impact if you don’t also make clear the repercussions. If you can, this is best if your team, department, or school can get on the same page, but regardless, make it crystal clear what will happen with academic dishonesty. I’m a firm believer in punishments here; whether it is a zero on an assignment or an office referral, there has to be some consequence. These get less push back if they are clearly outlined, and repeated, throughout the year.
Don’t make your major assignments Google-able.
Y’all. Writing test questions sucks. Writing AP level test questions really sucks. Writing good AP level test questions should get you a gold medal. I get it! But just as we tell our students, we don’t get better at things we don’t practice doing. If you are using questions off of old AP tests, websites, or even from textbook test banks, they’re out there. Don’t make cheating pay so easily!
I’m not saying to never use other people’s questions; we are humans with vibrant non-school lives. But start working on creating your own multiple choice banks so students can’t just remember and Google your tests.
Also, consider using more writing as assessments. The more you grade, the faster it goes (why do you think I grade for a week in the summer!?) and cheating here is a lot harder. I can more easily come up with 5-7 SAQ’s or LEQ prompts than I can 50-100 multiple choice questions. And even if they’re Google-able, it’s harder to memorize a whole essay than it is the answer to a multiple choice question.
Offer ways to earn credit back.
The number one reason my students cheat is because they are overwhelmed and competitive. Every single assignment feels like the end of the world when you know the valedictorian is graduating with a 4.77 and when the best public school in your state automatically accepts the top 6% of the every high school class.
There has been a push in recent years for more retesting/redoing of assignments. At first, I was adamantly against this, arguing that kids have to be able to do their best the first time and that the AP test itself was a one-chance situation. But I have changed my tune and it has made all the difference. In both of my AP classes (European and World Histories), I offer test corrections where students can earn back half credit (or if they did really poorly, get to an 80) regardless of their original score. I have an extra credit optional assignment in each course, and they can re-write essays for up to an 80 as well. I accept late-work, although I take off points.
I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve said to a kid having super anxiety before a test “hey, if it goes worst case scenario and you make a 0, you can always correct up to an 80.” Knowing this cuts down on the Hatchet-scenario that happened to me in 5th grade. Plus I do think the re-learning that happens as a part of re-writing or test corrections actually helps students in that AP test they have to do well with the first time around.
Social-Emotional Learning and Academic Dishonesty
Would this even be a blog post about teaching in 2019 if I didn’t mention social emotional learning?? In all seriousness, in some ways I think the culture of the competitive world of AP has really made cheating worse. There are two ways to combat this.
The first is your students need to know who the victim of their cheating is. You. I make this clear the first time it comes up in a year. They may think cheating is a victimless crime, after all no one gets hurt. I make it clear that I get hurt. That if I have to re-write a test or essay prompt or DBQ, then I don’t get to spend time with my husband and my two year old; that I don’t have time to tutor them during lunch or after school; that I don’t have time to hang out or sponsor their club.
I also make it clear what it does to our relationship, that without trust what do we have. This speech won’t make every student understand, but for many of them it will be the first time they see the consequences of their actions on someone besides themselves.
The second is that they need to know that in the long-run, cheating hurts them. If they cheat their way into med school – and out of med school – then they still have to be able to perform heart surgeries. Convincing kids they are more than their GPA or class rank is hard, but consistently telling them does stick. And I truly believe conversations about integrity and failure as a learning platform do cut back on academic dishonesty.
But also, let’s be realistic.
Kids are gonna cheat y’all. Take real precautions like locking your cabinets and “actively monitoring”. But also, don’t quit and work at Starbucks, even if their lattes are spot on.